The Future of COVID-19 Testing Could Be in Wearables

Tech 2 weeks ago ExtremeTech-RSS 279

Since COVID-19 first began to spread, several of us with digital health wearables have been wondering whether their data could be used, either individually or in aggregate, to help diagnose the disease. However, with fever being the most commonly cited diagnostic, that rules out almost all popular health and fitness trackers. One exception is the Oura Ring, which tracks body temperature along with heart rate and respiration. In an exciting development, UCSF researchers have kicked off a joint project with Oura to equip 2,000 San Francisco emergency workers with rings to enable them to track vital signs and attempt to develop a way to assist in diagnosing the disease early on (shout out to the SF Chronicle for its original reporting).

In addition, Oura is reaching out to its 150,000 users to ask them to allow their data to be used as part of the project. Using both individual data logged by the emergency workers and aggregated data from its other users, UCSF and Oura hope to have an early detection capability by Fall — which could be especially important as once the current lockdowns ease up, the virus may start to return.

Oura’s Sleep Tracking Is a Critical Element

Oura appMost fitness trackers are designed to keep track of the active portion of your day. But it is becoming increasingly popular to start adding the sensors and technology to keep tracking while you sleep. Those capabilities have primarily been aimed at measuring sleep quality by calculating your time asleep and estimated sleep stages. A few vendors have added optical oxygen saturation measurement to some of their devices, and are moving towards sleep apnea detection, but other than some very limited “hints” they don’t do much for tracking health.

Oura is an exception here. Because it not only monitors your sleep stages and pulse, but your respiration rate and body temperature, it can give you an idea of whether you might be getting sick. I’ve been working with several friends to evaluate the diagnostic capability of various health wearables and reported numbers, such as “Stress”, “Body Battery”, and “Sleep Quality.” The only two that (anecdotally, in our experience) seem to be good indicators of when something is wrong are resting heart rate and temperature. So the Oura ring is a natural fit for the task.

Oura Already Has a Success Story

It turns out that Oura already has at least one COVID-19 success story. Finnish CEO Petri Hollmen woke up not feeling well. His Oura Ring let him know that his temperature was over 100F, and his heart rate and breathing overnight were higher than usual. However, he felt normal, so if the ring hadn’t tipped him off, he would have gone about his day. Instead he got tested and found out he had COVID-19.

Hopefully this is only the beginning of how digital health wearables can be used to assist in disease detection and mitigation. In particular, I expect that the bigger players in the field like Fitbit (now Google), Garmin, and Apple will take note of how important temperature and respiration are, and begin adding more capabilities for measuring and reporting on those to their devices. In the meantime, it’s certainly good news that we may have a way to at least have a partial diagnostic that can get a handle on who needs more extensive testing.

Now Read:

  • CES 2020: A Breakthrough Year for Digital Health Wearables
  • How Sleep and Fitness Trackers Work, and Whether They’re Worth It
  • PCMag: Best Fitness Trackers for 2020

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